Picture Books for the Season

The spirit of the season shines through several beautifully illustrated picture books. Stephen Krensky’s “Hanukkah at Valley Forge” retells the story of a documented encounter between George Washington and a Jewish soldier during the harrowing winter of 1777. Washington notices a man lighting a candle and praying in his tent and stops to ask what he’s doing. As the soldier explains the meaning of Hanukkah, the general sees the parallel between the Jews battling the Maccabees and the Americans battling the British. The story is fluidly told, while Greg Harlin’s luminous watercolors offer quietly dramatic portraits bathed in candlelight.

Trina Schart Hyman won a Caldecott Honor Medal for “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins.” When Hershel arrives in a village where the synagogue is haunted by hobgoblins, preventing the people from celebrating Hanukkah, he’s determined to drive them away. Hershel manages to trick the creatures for seven nights in a row, but on the final night he’s faced with the biggest goblin of all, “a monstrous shape…too horrible to describe.”

Eric Kimmel’s lively retelling of an old story has all the elements to keep kids on the edge of their seats: monsters, a clever hero, and the triumph of light over the forces of darkness. Hyman’s detailed watercolors build suspense as the first hobgoblins, with a lumpy, Shrek-like appeal, give way to the gruesome head goblin and a happy ending to the tale.

Candice Ransom evokes the frozen winter of 1917 in the hills of southwest Virginia in her poignant picture book for older readers, “One Christmas Dawn.” A hard winter means it’s too cold to work at the quarry, so the father of the ten-year-old narrator takes the train to Bristol in search of work. But soon it’s even too cold for the train to run, and the family worries that they will have to celebrate Christmas without him. Ransom weaves in mountain folk beliefs, including a miraculous vision of a leafy summer’s day in the midst of winter, which she attributes to the British legend of the Glastonbury rose. Peter Fiore’s paintings in chilly shades of blue and white give way to warm browns and reds when the family is reunited at the end of the book.

Kate DiCamillo gently reminds readers of the true spirit of Christmas in “Great Joy.” A little girl notices an organ grinder and his monkey shivering in the cold and, despite her mother’s brisk dismissal – “They can’t come for dinner…They’re strangers…” – she can’t stop thinking about them. She finally invites them to come to the Christmas pageant at church, where she has one simple but significant line. Bagram Ibatoulline’s light-filled paintings are especially effective at portraying the glorious moment when the girl’s heart-felt invitation is answered.

Christians will appreciate Karen Kingsbury’s “We Believe in Christmas,” a picture book in rhyme that reminds busy families of the origins of the holiday. As the children pile into the van and the family makes its way through snow-covered streets to the church for a pageant, the text reminds readers of the true meaning of Christmas. “And if we want the perfect star to shine upon our tree,/ look and see that Brightest Star, and there will Christmas be.”

Originally published in the 12/23/08 Free Lance-Star newspaper.